New Zealand

‘Astroturf’ accusations over ‘We Belong’ website run by anti co-governance group

An image from the 'We Belong' website. RNZ traced this image, as well as several others on the site, to a stock image supplier.

An image from the ‘We Belong’ website. RNZ traced this image, as well as several others from the site, to a stock image supplier.
Photo: Screenshot

A website aimed at immigrants, heavy on te reo and pushing a message of unity is accused of being deceitful and divisive.

The ‘We Belong Aotearoa’ website and Facebook account was set up earlier this year.

With bright colours and a modern design, its stated purpose is “whiria te tāngata” – weave the people together.

Photographs of smiling people of various ethnicities are featured and the website says it stands for togetherness, unity, inclusiveness, and equality. It asks people to ‘join us’ by signing up with a name and email address.

It cites a Māori proverb: “Kia Mau Ki Te Tokanga Nui a Noho – there’s no place like home.”

Between $6000 and $20,964 has been spent on advertisements on Facebook promoting the website.

An unexpected owner

In August, a note in dark type on a dark background was added to the website. The website was created by the lobby group Hobson’s Pledge, which is opposed to mandated Māori representation in central and local government. Don Brash, the former Act and National Party leader, was named.

The website and social media presence are run by the Campaign Company, which lists Jordan Williams (co-founder of the Taxpayers’ Union) as a director. The Campaign Company is also listed as the registrant of other domain names associated with Hobson’s Pledge including isthisracist.nz, bottomline.nz and equalhealth.nz. The hobsonspledge.nz domain name was registered by the Taxpayers’ Union.

Hobson’s Pledge, the Taxpayers’ Union and Brash have been outspoken critics of the use of te reo Māori in New Zealand. One of the group’s campaigns is called: “NZ New Zealand, Not Aotearoa NZ.” It specifically “demands” that the official name of the country is affirmed as New Zealand, not Aotearoa New Zealand.

Why would it put its money behind a campaign called ‘We Belong Aotearoa’?

Brash told RNZ the site exists to oppose co-governance, which is a legal concept of shared management for things like environmental resources.

“You very rarely get any serious discussion about co-governance, which is why half the country thinks it’s a good thing. It’s an appalling thing. Treating New Zealanders differently based on their race is an appalling situation and we need to push back on that strongly.”

When asked why there was no mention of co-governance on the website he said: “No, there’s not but that’s the implied message, isn’t it?”

He did not know when messages about co-governance might be added to the site, or shared with people who had signed up to a mailing list for a “unified NZ” but said that would be decided at future Hobson’s Pledge strategy sessions.

“The message is clear, the message is simple, very straightforward. Nothing misleading about it at all.”

Aotearoa was “an expression which many New Zealanders use and the audience we’re trying to reach commonly use,” Brash said.

But “Aotearoa” would not be appearing on the Hobson’s Pledge website. “We disapprove strongly of the name of the country being changed.”

Left: Image leading to a petition on the Hobson’s Pledge website. Right: Logo of Hobson’s Pledge’s 'We Belong Aotearoa' Facebook page.

Left: Image leading to a petition on the Hobson’s Pledge website. Right: Logo of Hobson’s Pledge’s ‘We Belong Aotearoa’ Facebook page.
Photo: Supplied

Brash said the site was aimed at recent arrivals to the country to “make them feel welcome”.

‘Offensive, insulting, quite deceitful’

Māori cultural advisor Dr Karaitiana Taiuru (Ngāi Tahu/Ngāti Kahungunu/ Ngāti Toa & Rārua/ Ngāti Hikairo/ Tūwharetoa / Ngāti Hauiti / Ngāti Whitikaupeka/ Pākehā) said at first glance the site looked innocent.

“I was almost taken in until I saw Dr Brash’s name at the bottom. Had I not seen that I would have thought it was a great site.”

The intention behind the site was very different to its outward appearance.

“It’s really offensive, it’s insulting, and I think it’s quite deceitful,” Taiuru said.

The 'We Belong Aotearoa' campaign is run by Hobson's Pledge, which is opposed to mandatory representation for Māori in local and central government. The campaign uses Māori proverbs and features a quote and picture of Māori sovereignty campaigner Dame Whina Cooper in its material.

The campaign uses Māori proverbs and features a quote and picture of Māori sovereignty campaigner Dame Whina Cooper in its material.
Photo: Screenshots

“They’re basically using cultural appropriation as a weapon to deceive immigrants in New Zealand.”

The use of a photograph and quote from Dame Whina Cooper was highly offensive, he said.

“It’s well documented in the history books as well as oral histories that Whina Cooper fought against the government for Te Tiriti rights, for breaches of land confiscation.”

Image searches show all the portraits featured on the ‘We Belong’ website are stock photographs which carry descriptions on the stock photography site like “Portrait on a white background of a New Zealand Maori man wearing casual business clothes” or “Smiling young woman in hijab”.

‘Astroturfing’ tactics

Facebook data for advertising about social issues or politics shows the ‘We Belong’ page has spent between $6000 and $20,964 on advertisements this year. The Hobson’s Pledge Facebook page has spent between $31,400 and $45,879 on advertisements which started running this year, bringing the maximum spend to $66,843.

Last month, RNZ reported on another website with a domain name registered by The Campaign Company which appeared to be a grassroots campaign from dairy owners concerned about smokefree rules. The saveourstores.nz site was funded by the tobacco industry.

Dylan Reeve, author of Fake Believe: Conspiracy Theories in Aotearoa, said it was not unheard of for people trying to look like they are a grassroots group when they are not.

“I think it [We Belong] really looks like what we’d call astroturfing, for sure,” Reeve said.

The ‘We Belong’ website was a step more advanced.

The tactic was part of American political discourse, and was something he expected would continue in the future.

During the election campaign, people should be wary about who was behind any material on big political issues.

“If it seems quite cloaked, then I’d be deeply suspicious of who’s doing it, because I feel like legitimate organisations trying to raise concerns about political issues do so quite transparently,” Reeve said.

Another similarly-named organisation, Belong Aotearoa, which works with migrants and refugees, told RNZ it had recently been made aware of the ‘We Belong Aotearoa’ site and Facebook page. It was not affiliated with ‘We Belong’ in any way.

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